A new study into same-sex parenting released on Monday in the journal Pediatrics has yielded some interesting but controversial findings for those who have always maintained that children do best in heterosexual families.
Conducted by researchers Nanette Gartrell, a professor of psychiatry at the University of California, and Henry Bos, a behavioral scientist at the University of Amsterdam, the study investigated what researchers call “planned lesbian families” which translates as those mothers who identified as being lesbian at the time that they were artificially inseminated. Male same-sex parents were not part of this study.
Gartrell began the study in 1986, making this the longest investigation into same-sex parenting to date. Gartrell held successive meetings with the mothers of the 78 children involved, interviewing them during the insemination process or the first few months of pregnancy, and then when the children were 2, 5, 10 and 17. The children were also put through a series of psychological, behavioral and academic tests during this process.
The results of the study have been positive for lesbian families.
The authors found that children raised by lesbian mothers — whether the mother was partnered or single — scored very similarly to children raised by heterosexual parents on measures of development and social behavior. These findings were expected, the authors said; however, they were surprised to discover that children in lesbian homes scored higher than kids in straight families on some psychological measures of self-esteem and confidence, did better academically and were less likely to have behavioral problems, such as rule-breaking and aggression.
“We simply expected to find no difference in psychological adjustment between adolescents reared in lesbian families and the normative sample of age-matched controls,” says Gartrell. “I was surprised to find that on some measures we found higher levels of [psychological] competency and lower levels of behavioral problems. It wasn’t something I anticipated.”
In addition, children in same-sex-parent families whose mothers ended up separating did as well as children in lesbian families in which the moms stayed together.
The study placed a particular emphasis on how psychologically well adjusted the children were. Throughout the course of the research, parents rated their children based on the Child Behavior Checklist, a commonly accepted scale measuring behavioral and social problems and social competence. Based on these findings, 41 percent of the children participating in the study reportedly suffered some discrimination or stigmatization because of their lesbian moms, however, while at aged 10 they did exhibit slightly higher levels of psychological stress than their heterosexual counterparts, by the time that they were 17 those feelings were gone.
“Obviously there are some factors that may include family support and changes in education about appreciation for diversity that may be helping young people to come to a better place despite these experiences,” says Gartrell.
It’s not clear exactly why children of lesbian mothers tend to do better than those in heterosexual families on certain measures. But after studying gay and lesbian families for 24 years, Gartrell has some theories. “They are very involved in their children’s lives,” she says of the lesbian parents.
“And that is a great recipe for healthy outcomes for children. Being present, having good communication, being there in their schools, finding out what is going on in their schools and various aspects of the children’s lives is very, very important.”
While this study is by no means conclusive, it is not the first to suggest such findings and at least adds to the larger body of work indicating that same-sex parents do not negatively impact a child’s welfare or development. However, due to the fact that the study was funded by several LGBT groups such as the Gay Lesbian Medical Association, those opposed to gay parenting have already concluded that the study was biased and that the data has been manipulated.
Wendy Wright, president of the Concerned Women for America [CWA], a group that supports biblical values, questioned the legitimacy of the findings from a study funded by gay advocacy groups.
“That proves the prejudice and bias of the study,” she said. “This study was clearly designed to come out with one outcome — to attempt to sway people that children are not detrimentally affected in a homosexual household…
“In essence, this study claims to purport that children do better when raised by lesbians,” she said.
Studies have shown that children thrive having both a mother and a father, Wright said.
“You have to be a little suspicious of any study that says children being raised by same-sex couples do better or have superior outcomes to children raised with a mother and father,” she said. “It just defies common sense and reality.”
Gartrell refutes this and maintains that funding played no part in determining the outcome of the study. “My personal investment is in doing reputable research,” Gartrell said with reference to the criticism. “This is a straightforward statistical analysis. It will stand and it has withstood very rigorous peer review by the people who make the decision whether or not to publish it.”
I take exception to Wright’s clearly narrow opinion that same-sex couples being able to rear children to positive effect “defies common sense and reality.” The results of this study in no way showed that lesbian parents raised “superior” children and to suggest that is a lazy interpretation at best.
However, the study did point out that there may be some small benefits to lesbian parenting given that the majority of the children included in the study exhibited a level of psychological and behavioral adjustment that was slightly elevated when compared to their heterosexual counterparts.
Examining this closer though, these children would most likely have been introduced to themes of social diversity and tolerance earlier on in life, therein encouraging a greater understanding of the varied makeup of today’s society. Therefore, is a finding of slightly greater social and behavioral aptitude really that surprising?
Secondly, by virtue of how they were conceived, these children were long planned for and were presumably conceived at a time when the parents in question felt secure that they had optimal conditions for starting a family. Therein it seems that these findings indicate the benefits of planned pregnancy in a stable and nurturing environment, regardless of sexuality.
That Wright would immediately resort to slinging accusations of a biased study rather than actually examining the findings seems very telling though, especially given CWA’s history of anti-gay rhetoric.
Regardless, researchers behind the study have said that they would now like to continue to expand their ongoing research. They would also like to begin to collect data on gay fatherhood, which, comparatively speaking, has been less researched. The results of this and future studies will no doubt be met with equal interest and derision, but Gartrell has emphasized to Reuters Health that, above all, her findings continue to reinforce that “the things we know that make for good parenting are love, resources and being very involved in your child’s life.”